by Don Herron
“Conan vs. Conantics” first appeared in 1976 in a zine I was doing for an amateur press association called The Hyperborian League and was reprinted almost instantly that same year in the third issue of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, a Howardian fanzine of the era published by Damon Sasser.
Currently this essay — and others that cover in detail the background of how it came to be written — may be found in the eBook The Dark Barbarian That Towers Over All, the first ever “Robert E. Howard Litcrit MegaPack.”
Some implicit understandings assumed at the time today may not be clear to the general reader — for example, Glenn Lord was agent for the REH estate for many years, issued the classic REH fanzine The Howard Collector and compiled The Last Celt, the standard bibliography of Howard’s writings, but I did not need to tell my audience that in 1976. And REHupa was another amateur press association of that time, which still exists today.
The page references are to the first paperback editions of the Conan series from Lancer Books, and will be useless to most people today. I am leaving them in, however, as part of the historical moment. In the same manner, I am avoiding the temptation to improve some of the wording, painful as some of the phrasing is to me now. I have corrected a few typos that appeared the first time, and I have decided to have some mercy on readers by breaking my gigantic paragraphs of that time down into smaller units for ease of reading on the web site — and no doubt they also will be easier to read the next time this essay ends up on printed page.
Lin Carter, writing in the introduction to Conan the Buccaneer (Lancer Books, 1971), has noted that L. Sprague de Camp “…(variously working in collaboration with Howard, myself, and Björn Nyberg) has probably added more wordage to the Conan saga than Howard himself wrote originally” (page 17). Aside from the purpose of making money, de Camp did all this surplus work with Robert E. Howard’s creation Conan in order “to fill the gaps in the saga,” as he mentions on pp. 10–11 of Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer, 1969). Both de Camp and Carter have made statements from which readers may infer what they are trying to accomplish in their Conan imitations. For example, in an interview in REH: Lone Star Fictioneer no. 4 (spring, 1976), de Camp said, “I try to capture both the style and feel of REH, who has considerably influenced my own fiction. At the same time, I try to avoid his egregious blunders” (p. 37). One learns from the interview that de Camp thinks “…REH was a natural storyteller…marred by haste and slipshod carelessness, resulting in inconsistencies and anachronisms” (p. 37).
De Camp does admit that he and Lin Carter fail to capture a narrative drive comparable to Howard’s forceful and gripping one, and he explains this by saying “…we are not crazy the way he was, and hence we find his emotional intensity hard to imitate” (p. 37); otherwise, however, there seems to be an assurance on de Camp’s part that his imitations are about as good as the Howard originals, if not better in some respects. Surely they would contain no egregious blunders, hasty marring, inconsistencies or anachronisms, since de Camp is serving as both editor and a writer for the Conan series and does not work under the same pressures Howard did. After all, Howard wrote all his Conan tales within four years, pounding them out at great speed for appearance in Weird Tales magazine. De Camp has been involved in editing and rewriting Conan tales since the 1950s — some twenty years more than Howard worked at it, although I’m sure Conan imitations have not monopolized de Camp’s writing time all these years.
Yes, a careful job might well be expected from de Camp, as his comments indicate, and even Lin Carter writes that “We have further tightened the internal logic of the saga as a whole by…using for our chief villain…Thoth-Amon of Stygia, who frequently makes an appearance throughout the saga as a whole” (Conan the Buccaneer, p. 17). Apparently some care was taken in writing the additional Conan tales by both these writers — but I’m unsure how much weight may be attached to what Carter writes. It was Carter, was it not?, who in Imaginary Worlds (Ballantine, 1973) wrote on p. 193:
As for plucking a name out of the history book, Robert E. Howard himself was addicted to this unhappy practice, and the quality of his work suffered because of it…Howard was able to coin perfectly good original names, but all too often he was liable to borrow a name rather than invent one.
And then on p. 199 Carter offers this contradictory passage:
Howard, who did occasionally make up a good name (such as “Kull” and “Valusia”), may have been wiser than we assume when he borrowed names from history rather than coining them himself. For generally, when he does make up a name it is a pretty uninspired one.
Personally, I don’t think Carter knows how to write; the above contradiction is by no means alone in that one volume. In this essay I’ll use de Camp as the main spokesman on what was attempted in their imitations, for obvious reasons.
Another viewpoint on the imitations may be had by turning attention to what fans of de Camp think of them. Loay Hall — publisher of Pusad Revisited, a tribute to de Camp, and a staunch defender of de Camp in the letters pages of such amateur magazines as Fantasy Crossroads — has said of the de Camp-Carter Conantics: “I find their Conan superior to Bob E. Howard’s….” Hall made this judgment in Galatha no. 2, a fanzine created for the eleventh mailing of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association. In that same issue he gave a good account of what de Camp fans see in the imitations, writing specifically about the de Camp-Carter novels Conan the Buccaneer and Conan of the Isles: “True, it wasn’t the Conan REH created: de Camp and Carter’s version is more tame and worldly. It must be remembered that de Camp and Carter — while imitating REH — are also attempting to add something of their own to Conan, and to make Conan as realistic as possible.” Galatha no. 3 for REHupa mailing 12 added the observations that de Camp and Carter were “going deeper into characterization” and were trying to “bring the series to a more sophisticated level.”
Essentially, then, the Conantics of de Camp and Carter attempt to retain the style of the original stories and the character of Conan, but they try to avoid REH’s mistakes and add a level of sophistication and depth which Conantics followers do not believe Howard had in his stories. But do the de Camp-Carter tales actually do these things?
No, they don’t. Here’s why:
First, we should realize that the de Camp-Carter method of filling in gaps in Conan’s chronology is totally artificial compared to Howard’s version of the tales. In a letter to P. Schuyler Miller dated March 10, 1936, REH wrote, “In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him” (see Conan, Lancer, 1968, p. 17).
Anyone who has had the good fortune to listen to the personal tales told by E. Hoffmann Price, Howard’s friend and a top-flight pulp fictioneer, will know that REH hit the nail on the head here: for a while Price will talk about his cavalry days in the Philippines, then about visiting Howard in Texas, then perhaps about H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith or writing or chili or anything interesting that comes to mind. Genuine stories told by a person rich in experience do skip around; for this reason I find REH’s notion of his Conan tales very realistic and vital. The fact that all of the stories he wrote collected together do not form a detailed calendar of Conan’s life hardly matters. One may presume that the storyteller departed to tell his tales in other lands and times, and just be grateful that he stayed long enough to relate what adventures he would. Howard said himself that “There are many things concerning Conan’s life of which I am not certain myself” (Conan, p. 18).
Acknowledging that the de Camp-Carter method is clearly different than Howard’s, we may examine how well their system works for them. That is to say, do their imitations grow logically out of and into the Howard originals which they surround, forming a logical portrait of Conan developing from a youth to an adult, from thief to mercenary to king? The mixture of Howard and de Camp-Carter stories in the Lancer editions of Conan, Conan of Cimmeria, Conan the Freebooter, and Conan the Wanderer presents a sufficient body of work for a look into this problem. The contradictions between REH’s Conan and Conantics pop immediately into view.
In “The Tower of the Elephant,” REH wrote of Conan at the most youthful point in his character’s life that he ever dealt with. Of Conan’s religion Howard told: “His gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death. It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings” (Conan, p. 56). Young Conan was quite superstitious; he entered the tower of Yara the wizard after “…he hesitated at the thought of the strange perils which were said to await within” (Conan, p. 57). In “Rogues in the House,” REH further defines Conan’s youthful fears in this passage:
Murilo shuddered. “Conan, we are in the house of the archfiend! I came seeking a human enemy; I found a hairy devil out of hell.” Conan grunted uncertainly; fearless as a wounded tiger as far as human foes were concerned, he had all the superstitious dreads of the primitive (Conan, p. 143).
Yet in “The Hall of the Dead,” which de Camp completed from a fragment left by REH and which he places chronologically between “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Rogues in the House,” Conan assumes a blasé attitude toward the supernatural which is out of character at that point in his life: “Although the supernatural roused panicky, atavistic fears in his barbarian’s soul, he hardened himself with the thought that, when a supernatural being took material form, it could be hurt or killed by earthly weapons, just like any earthly man or monster” (Conan, p. 88). A bit too glib, this attitude is not very far removed from similar observations made by Howard’s Conan later in life; nonetheless, it comes too early in this story, at a time when Conan has had relatively few supernatural encounters.
In “The Hand of Nergal” completed by Lin Carter from a Howard outline, all hope for character continuity is shot to hell. The story opens with Conan in the Turanian army, which is being attacked by “weird shadow-things” (Carter’s Conan “thrills eerily” at sighting these creatures, incidentally). When his fellow soldiers sensibly flee from the monsters’ attack — the shadowy bat-things are cutting them down in droves — Carter’s Conan dramatically stops and urges them to fight like men. This version cannot be mistaken for Howard’s Conan, who was no leader in his early years and who was hardly brave or stupid enough to try to turn an army back to fight a supernatural menace. When one of the bat-things dropped down to attack Conan “…he — even he — stepped back from its grim, shadowy wings and the stench of its fetid breath” (Conan, p. 165). The “even he” indicates that Conan is less afraid of the monsters than the civilized Turanians, although he is a barbarian and so has heightened fears of the supernatural — but Carter seemingly forgets this. Worse still, he forgets Howard’s statement on religion which I quoted above and writes: “‘Crom!’ Conan gasped. It may have been a curse, but it sounded almost like a prayer” (Conan, p. 166). Like a prayer! When it is useless to call on Crom, who hates weaklings? Even as late in Conan’s life as the events in “Queen of the Black Coast” Howard has Conan say “‘What use to call on [Crom]? Little he cares if men live or die’” (Conan of Cimmeria, p. 97). This effort by Carter to inject genuine religious fervor into the character of Conan is one of the greatest faults of the Conantics tales, one I’ll deal with in a moment.
One of the major points of difference between Conan and Conantics is that REH’s creation reacts to dangerous situations instinctively, whereas the de Camp-Carter imitation reacts logically. Of course, in a very few instances Howard will have Conan use logic instead of impulse, as in “Black Colossus,” when the first army he is placed in command of wants to descend from a hill and meet the foemen on equal ground. Trying to dissuade his troops, the barbarian says, “‘Be reasonable…We have the advantage of position” (Conan the Freebooter, Lancer, 1968, p. 87). Howard provides a rationale for this change of character on Conan’s part in this exchange: “‘You grow sober with authority,’ quoth Amalric. ‘Such madness as that was always your particular joy.’ ‘Aye, when I had only my own life to consider,’ answered Conan” (Conan the Freebooter, p. 88). Of course, this was a special case. Most of the time we find that “…Conan had no time for conscious consecutive thought” (REH in “Queen of the Black Coast,” Conan of Cimmeria, p. 115) or “The Cimmerian, with the unerring instinct of the barbarian…” (“The Tower of the Elephant,” Conan, p. 55) or “it was Conan’s savage instinct which made him wheel suddenly; for the death that was upon them made no sound” (“Tow./Elep,” Conan, p. 64) or “That he did not explode in a burst of murderous frenzy is a fact that measured his horror…” (“Tow./Elep,” Conan, p. 72) or a scene of instantaneous action such as:
Waking to stupefied but ferocious life when they seized him, [Conan] disemboweled the captain, burst through his assailants, and would have escaped but for the liquor that still clouded his senses (REH in “Rogues in the House,” Conan, p. 132).
In “The Devil in Iron,” Howard writes: “‘Conan…is as crafty as a mountain lion. ‘It is more through wild animal instinct than through intelligence,’ answered Ghaznavi” (Conan the Wanderer, Lancer, 1968. p. 90). It’s evident that Howard’s Conan was by and large a man of action.
But from the first tale in their chronological sequence that de Camp and Carter write, they make Conan a thinking man’s barbarian. In that earliest episode in the life of their Conan imitation, “The Thing in the Crypt,” they pay lip-service to the original stories by writing “Conan reacted by instinct” (Conan, p. 48), but precede this accurate touch with: “How can you kill a thing that is already dead? The question echoed madly in Conan’s brain….Now he struck with greater cunning. Reasoning that if it could not walk it could not pursue him…” (Conan, p. 47) and so on. In “The Hall of the Dead,” de Camp puts in the following examples of logical thinking:
If he could not outrun the slug, perhaps he could tire it. A man, he knew, could outlast almost any animal in a long-distance run (Conan, p. 90).
A sword, Conan thought, would be of little use against such a monstrosity. Like other lowly forms of life, it could survive damage which would instantly destroy a higher creature (Conan, pp. 91–92).
Please note that the first of these examples, although phrased in logical terms, is not logical; Conan cannot outrun the giant slug, but he hopes to tire it by being able to outrun it!
Carter writes in “The Hand of Nergal”: “Straightening up from his fruitless quest, [Conan] gave over the search with the fatalism of the true barbarian. Time now to think of a plan” (Conan, p. 169). True REH barbarians rarely think of plans, nor is Howard’s Conan as well-versed in biological science as the de Camp-Carter imitation. In “Shadows in the Moonlight,” the real Conan displays a superficial acquaintance with a rare animal — “‘A gray man-ape,’ he grunted. ‘Dumb, and man-eating….These creatures always lurk in the deepest woods they can find and seldom emerge’” (Conan the Freebooter, pp. 133–134). Compare this simple account with the near textbook detail in the de Camp-Carter “Lair of the Ice Worm,” to wit: “The higher animals, he knew, radiated heat. Below them in the scale of living came the scaled and plated reptiles and fishes, whose temperature was that of their surroundings. But the Remora, the worm of the ice lands, seemed unique in that it radiated cold; at least, that was how Conan would have expressed it” (Conan of Cimmeria, p. 76). The genuine Conan certainly would not express his opinion in such terms, for he never did express such an opinion in comparable language.
Even though there are many more illustrations I could use to buttress this particular argument, why belabor the point? Anyone can see that de Camp and Carter are not writing about Conan — they are not even getting close to his character as created by Howard. This use of planning and logic may be the way in which they attempt to compensate for their lack of narrative drive, but it simply does not work within the framework of Conan’s character and it is certainly not an effective substitute for REH’s greater ability to write gripping tales.
Nor are the de Camp-Carter stories free from “egregious blunders.” In “The Curse of the Monolith,” they have a bad guy trap Conan, who is wearing mail, against a magnetized pillar and then gag him. “He waited until Conan opened his mouth to bellow for help, then adroitly jammed a bunch of silk into Conan’s mouth. While Conan gagged and chewed on the cloth, the little man knotted the scarf securely around Conan’s head” (Conan of Cimmeria, p. 24). On pages 28–29 we learn that Conan has freedom of movement of a hand and forearm — enough so that he could have grabbed the bad guy as he was being gagged. The “little man” would have had to press close to Conan, who is nearly a giant, to knot the scarf, and it would have taken at least two minutes or so to knot it, considering the difficulty of standing on tiptoe and working with raised arms — quite a strain. Howard has Conan nailed to a cross in “A Witch Shall Be Born,” one of the most famous scenes in Sword-and-Sorcery literature. When a vulture swoops down onto his chest to peck out his eyes, Howard’s Conan bites its head off. The de Camp-Carter imitation — a pale imitation indeed! — cannot even grab hold of an enemy with a free hand.
In “The City of Skulls,” de Camp and Carter have a rhinoceros blunder near Conan and some companions. They specifically refer to it as a “nose-horn” (Conan, p. 196), trying to get some mileage out of a notion for the legend of unicorns; that is, perhaps rhinos started the myth about unicorns. In “Hawks Over Shem,” there is mention of “bucklers of rhinoceros hide” (Conan the Freebooter, p. 34). De Camp rewrote a Howard historical story into this “Conan” tale, so he should have made these two references coincide — either both as “nose-horn” or both as rhinoceros, since the mention of rhinoceros in the latter story makes all the pains de Camp and Carter went to with the “nose-horn”/unicorn idea gratuitous. I’ll be the first to admit that this second blunder to which I’m calling attention is quite petty. I mention it only because most of the hasty mistakes Howard made are not very much more serious or are as trivial. It is quite unfair for de Camp and Carter to talk about Howard’s blunders when they can do no better themselves.
(Incidentally, the name of the city in “The City of Skulls” is Shamballah, a name taken from myth-history. According to Carter in Imaginary Worlds, this usage by himself and his collaborator is either inept — if you believe what he says on p. 193 — or clever — if you believe him on p. 199. A third option of not believing him at all should not be ignored.)
“The City of Skulls” displays as well as any other imitation how little de Camp and Carter assimilated REH’s work with Conan. For all their reputed delving into character and striving for realism, the actuality of their writing and what they write about is insulting, taken alone or compared to Howard. They have a scene of Conan as a prisoner. The leader of his captors is borne in on a chair. “For all the seriousness of his plight, Conan could not repress a grin. For the rimpoche Jalung Thongpa was very short and fat, with scrawny bow legs that scarcely reached the floor” (Conan, p. 198). This sort of “humor” is abusive — making fun of someone just because they are short and fat is hardly mature, but that is what the two have done. The “joke line” is the fact that Thongpa is a stereotyped “funny” physical type. In the next paragraph we learn that he is not funny, but “…peculiarly deformed. One side of his face did not match the other. It hung slackly from the bone and bore a blank, filmed eye…” (Conan, p. 199). If he is not funny (indeed how could such a person be thought of as funny), then what was the use of having Conan “grin” upon seeing him, except to get in a cheap joke at the expense of short, fat people?
Humor in Howard stories is usually done in self-mockery, at the expense of the hero, as comedy from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen has worked. This self-mockery is evident in REH’s Breckinridge Elkins tales and in this scene from “Black Colossus,” a Conan adventure by Howard: “Jerking aside the velvet curtains, she dramatically indicated the Cimmerian. It was perhaps not an entirely happy moment for the disclosure. Conan was sprawled in his chair, his feet propped on the ebony table, busily engaged in gnawing a beef bone…” (Conan the Freebooter, p. 74).
Furthermore, “Conan” in “The City of Skulls” is alien to the real Conan. He “…prudently kept his opinion to himself” (Conan, p. 203). The real Conan was forthright, as this example shows:
“Why do the guardsmen pursue you?” asked Tito. “Not that it’s any of my business, but I thought perhaps — ” “I’ve nothing to conceal,” replied the Cimmerian. “By Crom, though I’ve spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are still beyond my comprehension” (“Queen of the Black Coast,” Conan of Cimmeria, p. 84).
In “Black Colossus,” REH’s Conan answers a princess in his typical fashion and we learn that “…it was a new experience for a man to speak so forthrightly to her, his words were not couched in courtier phrases” (Conan the Freebooter, p. 72).
One sequence in particular completely violates the character of Conan. The Conantics barbarian is cuffed by the overseer on the slave galley he is a prisoner on. Like the genuine Conan he explodes into action, but unlike Conan he “…belatedly controlled his rage” (Conan, p. 206). Then the overseer whips him. “But Conan did not scream or move a muscle. It was as if he felt nothing, so strong was the iron of his will” (Conan, p. 207). If anyone thinks REH’s Conan would sit still under a beating…well, they’d better stick to reading Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria. It is incredible to me that de Camp and Carter have no more grasp of Conan’s character — or of his type of character — than to pass such a scene off on readers.
For a comparison with what a man like Conan would do under stress situations, let’s look at Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, a classic mystery. In it we find Philip Lombard, a soldier of fortune. Christie describes him thus: “He moved like a panther, smoothly and noiselessly. There was something of the panther about him altogether. A beast of prey — pleasant to the eye.” And “…his lips drew back from his teeth in that curious wolflike smile characteristic of the man.” Wolf, panther and tiger metaphors for characters like Conan and Lombard are standard. As is the case with Conan, Lombard is forthright and honest. When he is accused of murdering twenty-one East Africans early in the novel, he answers: “Story’s quite true! I left ’em! Matter of self-preservation. We were lost in the bush. I and a couple of other fellows took what food there was and cleared out.” He also says in the book, “If I were to commit one or more murders it would be solely for what I could get out of them.” Obviously, Conan and Lombard are cut from the same cloth. Look at what happens when Lombard is faced with a crisis situation, facing Vera Claythorne who is armed with a pistol:
Death was very near Philip Lombard now. It had never, he knew, been nearer….His quick brain was working. Which way — which method — talk her over — lull her into security — or a swift dash — All his life Lombard had taken the risky way. He took it now. He spoke slowly, argumentatively. “Now look here, my dear girl, you just listen — ” And then he sprang. Quick as a panther — as any feline creature….Automatically Vera pressed the trigger….Lombard’s leaping body stayed poised in mid-spring, then crashed heavily to the ground. Philip Lombard was dead — shot through the heart….
This understanding that characters of the type like Conan and Lombard act in crisis situations is one point that separates Howard and Christie, both at the top in their respective genres, from writers like de Camp and Carter. Lombard could have used a logical ploy to get out of that spot — that much is clear. He had a thinking man’s option as much as the Conantics barbarian, but he was a man of action like Conan. His action caused his death; in the Howard Conan tales there is always the feeling that Conan can die — after his battle with Thog in “The Slithering Shadow,” he is near death; his fight with Baal-pteor in “Shadows In Zamboula” is a close contest and Baal-pteor was only a strong man, unaided by the ability to become a monster or something of that sort (see pp. 71–73, Conan the Wanderer); in “Red Nails,” Conan is about to hack off his foot in order to escape from a trap so that he can save a woman’s life (when I first read “Red Nails,” the surety that Conan would have hacked off his foot was absolute; Howard’s “crazy” narrative drive and power to involve his readers is a quality not to be sneered at or one that can be worked around with any sort of success).
Most irritating of all about this Conantics sequence is that it is resolved by an unnecessary use of logic: “In his desperation, an inspiration struck him. The construction of the oarlock limited the vertical motion of the loom to a height of less than five feet above the deck…” (Conan, p. 211). Conantics just squats under it and lifts, breaking it off for use as a gigantic club. Before this, he takes the whip away from the overseer by force. He could have done both these things by wild action like Conan the first time he was whipped. The galley sequence in “The City of Skulls” is an uncalled-for plot delay, excess padding — if it is judged with the idea in mind that it is supposed to be a Conan story.
Also, I never knew that REH’s Conan was a superhero like the de Camp-Carter version. Sure, in “Queen of the Black Coast” he exerts great strength to cast part of a stone column from his legs; “With a terrible cry he heaved upward, hurling the stone aside” (Conan of Cimmeria, p. 116). This effort is not so unbelievable in view of Conan’s muscular development and the adrenaline the dire situation he was in would call for. In “Shadows in the Moonlight,” he does another bit of weightlifting: “The stone was a symmetrical block…astonishingly massive. The Cimmerian grasped it…and with legs braced…the muscles standing out on his arms and back in straining knots, he…cast it from him, exerting every ounce of nerve and sinew. It fell a few feet in front of him” (Conan the Freebooter, p. 110). Notice that he threw it only a “few feet” even though he used all his strength. In “The Devil in Iron,” Conan throws “a heavy bench…, a missile few men could even lift” (Conan the Wanderer, p. 113), again in a desperate situation. Please do note that in these instances — the most extreme examples of Conan’s strength that Howard ever presents — the Cimmerian only does these deeds once and at great cost in effort.
In “The City of Skulls,” Conantics “…heaved up a marble bench. Sinews creaking with the effort, Conan raised the heavy bench over his head and hurled it at the leg….He stepped closer, picked up the bench again, and again swung it against the ankle” (Conan, pp. 217–218). De Camp and Carter actually have Conantics walking around with this great weight and picking it up twice to swing it like some kind of gigantic baseball bat! In “The Castle of Terror” they write that “At first [Conantics] had run effortlessly…” (Conan of Cimmeria, p. 144) — after a “grueling flight” through the jungle and an eight-day trek across a plains. Conantics finally gets tired after he is chased by lions for an hour on top of his previous exertions! I daresay Conantics has a huge letter “C” sewn onto his chest — certainly that would be about as “realistic” as most of the other details and incidents in a de Camp-Carter story.
Carter’s use of religion in the imitations is one of the major differences between Conantics and Conan, and one of the major flaws in an imitation of Howard. In “The Hand of Nergal,” Carter presents the most simple religious conflict possible — Good versus Evil. A gigantic golden god representing the Heart of Tammuz battles a gigantic tenebrous god representing the Hand of Nergal. I asked Glenn Lord if Howard, in his outline of “The Hand of Nergal,” included the golden god-defender of the Heart of Tammuz. He answered “no” in a letter dated February 2, 1974. This fact means the injection of forces for Good in Conantics stories must be Carter’s idea — an idea he repeats with de Camp in Conan of the Isles, featuring another Good vs. Evil confrontation and even a scene wherein the imitation Conan sacrifices a bullock to Crom (who hates weaklings)! Why, Crom even takes on tangible form in that Conantics novel!
A reading of the Howard Conan tales reveals that REH never had Crom appear as a tangible entity, only as a religious concept. REH never had any Good Gods as real beings in his series; his Evil Gods were ancient or alien entities whom man conceived as evil because the beings’ purposes and actions usually brought destruction to men, as was the case in
H. P. Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothoth Myth-Cycle. In “Queen of the Black Coast,” Conan is asked if he fears the gods and he answers, “‘I would not tread on their shadow….Some gods are strong to harm, others, to aid; at least so say their priests’” (Conan of Cimmeria, p. 96, italics mine). In “Black Colossus,” Mitra, a kind god, orders the princess Yasmela who has come into his temple for help to “‘Go forth into the streets alone, and place your kingdom in the hands of the first man you meet there’” (Conan the Freebooter, p. 66). Afterwards Yasmela says, “’It might have been the voice of the god, or a trick of a priest’” (p. 67, italics mine). These references to priests suggest the possibility that the priesthoods may not be serving actual gods, but are perhaps using religion as a front to provide themselves with an easy way of life.
If REH had intended for Good Gods to enter his fictional milieu he could have brought them in easily enough. He did not; the above reference to Mitra is the closest he ever came to admitting the actual existence of forces of Good, and he casts strong doubts on the idea immediately by having Yasmela herself doubt the certainty that she had conversed with a god. Conan the Conqueror, a novel by Howard, shows Conan aided by the cult of Asura in the one instance in which religion takes an active hand in his behalf. No god ever appears, however, and the cult of Asura can hardly be considered a force for Good, since “Conan had been told dark tales of hidden temples where intense [sic. incense?] smoke drifted up incessantly from black altars where kidnapped humans were sacrificed before a great coiled serpent…” (p. 104). Why, in his tales of Solomon Kane the Puritan adventurer, Howard never has God intervene in Kane’s behalf. Kane overcomes by his own strength and skill with weapons; occasionally he is aided by a juju man and black magic!
I personally feel that REH’s treatment of Hyborian Age religion on a conceptual basis, with alien beings or beings from earth’s prime acting as evil gods, is much more realistic than the simplistic antics in some of the de Camp-Carter efforts. Once a writer admits the existence of Good gods who are willing and ready to help out the hero, he blunts all suspense with the overwhelming presence of deus ex machina. Of course, authors like J.R.R. Tolkien are able to use a Good vs. Evil conflict — without the presence of supreme beings — on various story levels and in various degrees to great achievement. A comparison of Tolkien to Carter, though, could only be facetious. Likewise, there is little reason to compare Howard with Carter with any degree of seriousness.
In the considered opinion of this writer, all the extra de Camp-Carter wordage added to Robert E. Howard’s own and mixed in with his stories in the Conan paperback books has done more damage to REH’s literary reputation than all the poor tales that Howard wrote himself. By literary reputation I do not mean an ability or artistic accomplishment which would place Howard on a level with Shakespeare or anything of that sort, but rather a clear appreciation by readers of what REH was writing. The comparisons I’ve made herein indicate what a mess de Camp and Carter have made of Conan, and this mess is what readers of the Conan books get most of the time, thanks to the flood of imitations by de Camp, Carter and Nyberg.
The coinage of “Conantics” is singularly appropriate in describing the imitations. The root word “Conan” is obvious. Conan’s actions in the imitations are “antics,” nothing more. “Con” means that these stories are anti-Howard in all important respects. “Tic”’ means that these imitations suck the blood from the original tales by their presence in the same books; they leech off the power of Howard’s writing, because they have no power of their own. The Conantics stories are miserable additions to Sword-and-Sorcery fiction by any standard of decent writing and are certainly unworthy to be in the same books with fiction by Robert E. Howard, who is unquestionably one of the very best writers of Sword-and-Sorcery.
In the commercial arena, de Camp and other people managing the Conan franchise later allowed many other novels to be written and “added” to the series, by Robert Jordan, Roland Green and others. Bob Price, editor of Crypt of Cthulhu, once asked me to write a sequel to “Conan vs Conantics,” surveying the differences between REH and these later books, and I thought to myself, “You must be kidding.” Really, once the point is made, why go on? None of the later “Conan” authors were Robert E. Howard, and hence none of their “Conan” books are any good. I assume that the people who read those books looking for “more Conan” cannot tell the difference between the authentic item and any sort of imitation. You almost have to feel sorry for such readers, since they are obviously missing out on so much of what makes the original stories great.
The word “Conantics,” by the way, was coined by Donald Wandrei, author of “The Red Brain” and other classic stories for Weird Tales and other pulps, co-founder of the specialty press Arkham House, who allowed me to take it into combat against de Camp. A movement to restore REH into pure textual editions has resulted in a tidal wave of new editions from Del Rey, Bison Books, and other publishers.
The most recent editions of Conan have cut the de Camp and Carter material out completely.